An anthology comic
cover art by Jill Thompson.
Interior stories written and illustrated by many talented "girls".
One might not think to look for a Doctor Strange appearance in a comic with the title; "GIRL COMICS", and yet, if you look inside issue # 2 - past the richly colored cover by Jill Thompson - you will be gladdened to find an excellent "Strange Tale" inside.
Serendipitously enough, it was the cover that first attracted my attention, as it incidentally features CLEA, Dr. Strange's former, long-time love.
I had originally suspected that perhaps inside, a Colleen Coover illustrated piece would feature Clea and possibly have a cameo by Strange. However, while I was disappointed that such a tale was not within, I was most appreciative to find, among an issue filled with delightful works, the Dr. Strange story "RONDEAU" written by Christine Boylan, with art by Cynthia Martin, Colors by June Chung and letters by Kathleen Marinaccio.
In an issue filled with whimsical humorous short stories, this most serious tale wraps up the issue and feels like the substantial meal you enjoy after you've first picked at sugary snacks.
What is to follow is a very detailed (far-too-much-thought-for-the-source-material-and-for-that-I-apologize-to-the-creative-team) review of just that one story. Normally, I wouldn't review such a "minor" piece, and yet this 6-page story deals with so many of the current situations facing Dr. Strange that it is elevated to a work of major importance and relevance by that very nature.
I will present the first 3 pages of the story here.
But it is up to you to go out and get the issue - aside from this entertaining and exciting story, but also for the other wonderful works to be found therein (there's truly something for everyone - although the price point of $4.99 U.S. is hard to justify - despite the 48 page count).
*All images can be enlarged by clicking on them *
Before the events of this story, Strange has been "laying low" since he abdicated his mantle as the Sorcerer Supreme. While some of his time has been in the company of the Avengers, (the "New" and the "Newly New",) other time has been spent within the walls of his now-hidden-from-sight Sanctum.
"Rondeau" opens with Stephen Strange, in plain-clothes attire; black slacks, white shirt, black tie and dress shoes, at a grand piano which is now located in his old study at the top floor of his Sanctum Sanctorum.
Here, the interior of the Sanctum is lavishly rendered - but I will get to the artwork of Cynthia Martin and coloring of June Chung a little later - I just wanted to state something truly positive before I got too involved with the various negative aspects of the tale. (Which is not to say that I didn't find the story to be a positive one, just that there are faults and flaws.)
While practicing a piece at the keys of his piano, Strange is ruminating upon some pseudo-intellectual, quasi-philosophical conundrum of the nature of magic, matter and thought.
Honestly, I don't wish to open the review with a negative (since I have a genuinely positive feel for the work) but it is with these words that the story begins.
I have to state that - to me - that sequence is totally out-of-place here since it is just a casually tossed-in bit of fluffery having nothing to do with the nature of the story.
It seems more about a writer trying to give a mystic and learned character something "enlightened" to say, without it much making sense for that character in the story with which it is placed.
I'll repeat it here, just so you can read what it is that irks me about it:
"What I know: That matter is created by thought, not the other way
That is the physics of magic.
What I fear: If all thought ceases... will matter also weaken and
It is a flawed argument as Boylan contradicts her point by the end of his musings, because she has Strange end with:
"How do I get my thoughts back?"
Not to belabor the point, bashing what is intrinsically a good story, with (among some other problems) a misguided (or merely erroneous) opening line, but while, as someone who understands that matter is indeed created by thought, it is wrong to think that matter can not at least inspire thought (if not actually create it). Inspiration works both ways, as an inspired thought can help to create a work of matter and that matter can then in turn inspire more thoughts - which may in turn create more matter...
And the end line of his opening thought, begs us why would he lose his thoughts if the matter disappears, since the author states that matter does not create thought. By her own words, the fact that there is no matter... shouldn't matter - at least inasmuch as the creation (and therefore retaining) of thought.
Yes. I understand that her point was that "if all thought ceases"... then would all matter go away, but what would it take for all thought to cease?
In what regard would Strange then even think as to why he would require thoughts if everything ceased to be? - Unless he were turned (alongside the rest of all life on Earth if not the dimension) into a mindless lump, but then, he would still - by the original supposition, not exist to regain his thoughts. It's a poor argument and the puzzle which is at its heart, circles back upon itself like a Möbius-strip.
It's a very minor bit of writing that should have either been edited out, or expanded (and expounded) upon in the tale.
Luckily, while it is not the only questionable point in the story, it is not enough to dour my enjoyment overmuch, since the total of the tale is greater than the sum of its (sometimes faulty) parts.
"Rondeau" features a Stephen Strange who is no longer the "Sorcerer Supreme", and who is caught while at that crossroads by an old foe.
As we see, the foeman in the tale is not a man at all... as teased by the fact that the comic title is "Girl Comics". Besides it being a comic completely created by "girls", it also heavily features female characters - and the villain of this piece is one of Stephen Strange's oldest foes (and one of his few female adversaries); ADRIA.
As I am one of (if not the) most intensely (insanely) dedicated Doctor Strange fan with the most reference-heavy site on the web (with possible exception to Neilalien), I present:
- She first appeared in a three-part story in Strange Tales 141 - 143 (1966)
In those classic issues, written by both Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, with art by Ditko, Adria was but one of three mystics (with Kaecilius, and Demonicus) who did the bidding of Strange's oldest foe; Baron Mordo.Side Note: In my humble opinion, this story arc is one of the all-time BEST of Doctor Strange's history. He is trapped and (seemingly) totally helpless as a captive (bound and blinded) by the three minor mystics. His adventure and escape is a masterwork of story and art.
At the end of that earlier tale, Doc wiped her mind (along with those of her helpmates) of the ways of magic (although, in her next appearance, we find that his mind-eraser spell was seemingly meant to be a temporary one - thus allowing a brief respite from magic, so that they might perhaps learn the error of their ways).
- Her next appearance was in Doctor Strange v2 # 56 (in 1982).
Strange himself, had managed to escape from that dimension, but not easily (although, it was way back in one of his earliest recorded adventures).Adria (nor her compatriots) has not been seen or mentioned since then - until now.
However, since she was always shown to be the most adept of her little group, it would not be surprising that she would have been able to find a way out - somehow.
(btw, for more info on "Mordo's Minions", check out their listing on the Marvel Un-Official Appendix - [HERE])
What is niggling, in a purely, "turn-over-all-your-cards-so-we-can-see-how-the-trick-is-done" type of way is that we don't see how she ever escaped from that fate.
--- END of ADRIA background info ---
What is curious, and I don't know if it is a clue as to how Adria escaped her prior fate, or merely a poor choice on the part of letterer Kathleen Marinaccio, but Adria's speech-bubbles (aka word balloons) are in "reverse". White text on a black background. That is a style usually reserved for demons and other-worldly "entities". Here, I think it is just utilized to mean that she is "evil" - unless writer Martin was unsure of the origins of the character - OR - perhaps was adding her own twist to them (but with no real info other than the style of visual speech - it is impossible to say). I daresay, that perhaps the ordeal of escaping from the "purple dimension" may have had an extra side-effect... or price - which, since it is not mentioned, even in passing within this story, is merely my own conjecture - to fill-in-the-blanks.
I will, at this time, take a moment to write of the artwork.
The coloring here, by June Chung, as opposed to that of every other story in the issue, is dark and deep, with rich, warm earth tones counterbalanced by cool greens and purples with some selective usage of deep lustrous reds.
The coloring lets you know, in no uncertain terms that this story is serious. No fluff piece, this.
The pencils and inks by Cynthia Martin are dare I say it... "masculine". Meaning no disrespect or gender bias, this work is precisely what readers have come to expect in an "adult" comic book. The artwork - if I might draw comparisons to a few contemporary illustrators (which I am reluctant to do, since Martin's work looks like... Martin's - but for the benefit of those who may require some further evaluation) is a blend of the best of Richard Case and Tim Sale. Again, using the rest of the issue as a comparison, this is serious artwork, wherein the rest of the book, while energetic and delightful, is more light and cartoony. Here, her figures are real and not overly romanticized. Strange is rugged while Adria (and the other female characters shown) are softer - and unlike the women drawn by many male artists, don't all share the same face and body - with just different hairstyles.
These 6 pages are filled with such intricate detail that it is worth re-reading the story again just to look deeply into each corner and crevice - nook and cranny, since (with the exception of one glaring omission) absolutely nothing is left out of the backgrounds. The interior of the Sanctum is meticulously rendered. Rarely, in all the 40+ years of any artist's visual representation of Strange's home, has it been furnished so lavishly, or filled, so replete with believable (and actually placeable) real-world knick-knacks, talismans, art, statuary and eclectica.
In that, it is a job well done. However, the art does not get a totally positive grade.
That praise of Cynthia Martin does not get her out of falling prey to something that causes the art to fail miserably, at least in the genre of consecutive visual narrative (aka panel-by-panel continuity).
The primary job of a comic book artist is not to just draw pretty pictures. The artist's primary task is to be able to tell the story - as if no words were to be used in conjunction with the illustrations, and still have that story be readily evident just by the drawn pages themselves.
Unfortunately, the artwork fails in a few different instances to covey the necessary information clearly.
There are several occasions where either the story /script was lacking or the artwork was not crafted to properly portray the events. In some instances - it is the fault of both, story and art.
It seems that one of the most important aspects of the story is that Adria has invaded Strange's Sanctum armed with some sort of mystic cuff (it looks like an ornamental bracelet). This item seemingly binds Strange's hands - mystically and remotely - without its ever being in contact with him, so that he is unable to cast any magical gestures of his own. It is never mentioned by any text or dialogue in the piece, but shown as something Adria is casually holding.
However, in the vital panel where we need to see it activated (and how it is activated), Martin chooses to show that event in a mid-ground image - allowing for only those who pay close attention to the body language - and note a simple glowing coloring effect, to guess what has transpired. Otherwise, the moment is lost.
Usually, such an action would be given a more up close viewpoint to give it "weight".
Another "error" (although, I don't know who is more at fault, the writer or the artist) is that Strange only escapes his predicament by fooling Adria into thinking that a fake electronic fireplace that he has clicked on with his toe is indeed real enough - and dangerous enough - to startle her into dropping the mystic cuff, thus releasing him.
A powerful sorceress has no idea if a fake, electronic fireplace is not real fire?
It is this which leads me to believe that the writer; Christine Boylan, believes Adria to be an otherworld entity - unfamiliar with the workings of home furnishings.
(She might also fall prey to the sorcerous conundrums of the "I've-got-your-nose" thumb-trick, or the hiding-his-face-behind-his-hands "you can't see me" vanishing act.)
The sequence is also difficult to understand, because nowhere in the artwork (even in the panels where the "fire" is shown), is any actual fireplace or even device revealed. It merely seems that the "fire" (which is pretty realistic looking - for a simulated "fire") just spouts flames from the middle of the floor.
The activation of the phony pyrotechnic is one of a curiously over-complicated nature. The power button being on a surge-protector strip that is hidden under a throw rug - or is it an overly long curtain? It's hard to tell, as there are draperies everywhere. Either way, can we say "fire hazard?" But Strange seems to need to remove his shoe and sock in order to push the single button with his naked toe.
Is this supposed to be some sort of "fail-safe" that Strange has set up in case his home is invaded by stupid people - or those from the distant past - to whom this would seem like powerful magic?
(If so, then Stephen Strange is the most prepared-for-any-contingency comic book character since Batman pulled out a can of "Bat-Shark-Repellent" from his utility belt.)
At first, I thought that his activation of an obvious electrical fire hazard was to intentionally start a real fire. One that would force Adria to move and hopefully lose control of her weapon.
But when she questions him in that it was "not even a real fire?" - I simply lost all sense of suspension of disbelief.
In any event, with Adria being caught by surprise and her dropping of the mystic cuff, it is only with the deactivation of the item that the reader truly sees how it was used in the first place - or even that it was used - all after the fact. But, Strange is only encumbered by the baneful bangle for but a single page, and as such, is merely the first of Adria's trip-ups in the story.
Before I continue with Adria's (and the creative team's) misteps, I want to address... a dress.
Adria's garment is a red gown - heavily detailed with mystic rune-like symbols, and yet, unlike her usual mystic garb, is a garment that could be worn out in public.
With a wide and deep plunging neckline (showcasing her body from breasts down to her navel) and seemingly held-together by a one-button-in-front design, it is a strange mix of "what a male comic artist would think a dress would look like" and "high-fashion" model-wear.
Curiously, it is exactly the type of revealing garment that garner most male comic artists accusations of "overly sexualizing" their female characters. Yet here, in the hands of a female artist, it is to be understood as "haute couture". Is it "demeaning" if drawn by a man, and yet "empowering" if drawn by a woman? I don't feel qualified or compelled to make that call.
Don't get me wrong. It is lovely to look at. I found it to be an interesting new look for Adria, although I must confess I missed her purple and white sorcerer's gown with the high collar. Yet, this new gown, while being fashionable, at the same time addresses a particular dilemma when dealing with this point of Dr. Strange's low-ebb mystic career.
Since his loss of the position as Sorcerer Supreme, he has been shown, most often, in plain-clothes.
You see, how do you have Strange wearing normal street wear and his adversaries running around in high-collared cloaks with pointy eyeball designs everywhere? You can't.
Adria's previous sorcerous apparel fit alongside the over-the-top couture of the Lee/Ditko mystic set. Her current gown matches the current "downplayed" nature of Marvel magic.
Still, count this fan as hoping for a return of the flamboyant gear of the Mystics of yesteryear. Certainly, a plain-clothed mystic is perfectly fine, (and John Constantine is his name) but when Doc eventually resumes his mantle, he also best don his ceremonial garb as well.
Back to the story-
After Adria is distracted by some sleight of hand (or toe, as the case might be) and having the rug literally pulled from under her, she counters with a spell that she says Strange doesn't know, and is to be so debilitating to him that he will be powerless and hover on the brink of oblivion all the while being kept in a glass display case for Adria to admire at her leisure.
No spell is actually portrayed - unless you count the fact that the artwork becomes so busy that a visual cacophony is presented. That may very well be the effect that Cynthia Martin was going for. Less flash and more frenzy. The background becomes awash with superimposed musical scales while a flurry of small vignetted images of Strange's former loves and apprentices (Night Nurse, Clea and the most recent, Casey Kinmont) taunt him at the periphery of sensation. It seems to be that the effect of the spell is to have Strange so overwhelmed that he is unable to defend himself - totally supplicant to his captor's will.
In that... the artwork and lack of a flashy spell works.
The only problem for Adria? Strange totally knows of the spell and can easily counter it.
* EDIT / UPDATE *
Artist Cynthia Martin graced this humble blog with her presence and she was gracious enough to leave a comment -I'll link to it - [HERE] (that -surprisingly- did not call for my head on a pike) where she even lets on to another slip-up in the art:
She mentioned that nearing the end of the story she forgot to draw Adria's many bracelets that bejeweled her arms for much of the story.
One panel they are on both arms, another panel they are only on one, and yet at the end she has none.
Honestly, even I didn't see that, and truthfully, it's not a big deal (although, to an artist - it is maddening. Such a thing would leap out at her every time she sees these pages from now on).
If it helps, I'll even help out with a "no no-prize winning" explanation - here goes:
Those many bejeweled bangles were, in fact objects of power! Adria was using them as energy resources to aid in her escape FROM the Purple Dimension - where she is still imprisoned!
The bracelets merely helped her to send out a mystical doppleganger with which to retrieve more power from Strange's edifice.
As she was forced to use more and more energies to combat against Strange, she used up their power and the bracelets would fluctuate - or vanish altogether!
When their power was used up, her pseudo-form would also wither away.
By the way, the fact that her real body was still in another dimension, and that she was speaking "through" her double, would ALSO explain the whole "reverse text" nature of Adria's word balloons!
How's about THAT?
In the meanwhile, that's just my own "made-up" ending explanation.
I'd like to thank "Cyn" for bravely venturing here into the forums of nerd-commentary. I appreciate it and am gladdened that she found my review to have merit.
* END EDIT / UPDATE *
I won't give the (real) end away, for it is up to you to go and read it. Which I wholeheartedly endorse you doing so.
The point of ALL of this seems to be that Adria wishes to collect whatever "power" Strange has hidden in the house. He tells her that he is "powerless" but she knows he must have hidden it somewhere in various objects, and she will not stop until she collects it all for herself.
It is this point that so many writers fail to understand... and I can't emphasize it enough:
Being a sorcerer.. Strange doesn't HAVE any "power" or "powers".
He never has!
What he can do is manipulate latent energies that exist in the universe, and certainly some mystical objects do come with some power (although, it is more accurately a latent spell worked into the object - or a direct linkage to an entity and their power source), but the only thing that a mystic is empowered by is KNOWLEDGE! And THAT can not be lost (unless his memory is lost in some way - or his faculties are lessened).
To this end, Strange should theoretically be just as "powerful" as he was as Sorcerer Supreme, except with whatever abilities or "energies" that are bequeathed him by objects bearing to that mantle (the Eye of Agamotto and perhaps the Cloak of Levitation -along with some of the other talismans and tomes in his former collection). As far as abilities, he should not be any less that what he once was. Perhaps, otherworldly entities might no longer favor him to empower his spells. That could certainly be a possibility. But, if one looks into the "big picture", it would not do an entity any good to deny him - since he will most likely be in a better position to "owe" them should they acquiesce. The only deities who might deny his entreaty now would be those who are gladdened to see him rendered low. It is less likely that Strange would be calling upon such entities anyway, as any of them who wish to see him humbled would most likely be "less than good" anyway.
(Of course, gods and other-dimensional entities are fickle and childlike creatures, so who can say what their motivations might be?)
However, it has long been the erroneous point of Marvel magic that it is treated like a "point and shoot power" and less of an art form (which it is - hence the term Mystic Arts), so I have to be somewhat gladdened that in this story, Christine Boylan uses an object of art - of music - to be the place wherein Strange houses the last of his stored "power". Even as Stephen uses some of his stored power, the piano seems to lose its place among the laws of reality of the Earth, keys conforming to their own laws of perspective and foregoing the reality of Euclidean geometry. Boylan's story and Martin's art at least try to place a link between art and magic - if even this small instance.
This is also the first time that I have ever noted where Strange has been shown to have any musical aptitude or inclinations whatsoever. (His naming of his mid 1990's business tower/Sanctum the "Tempo" building notwithstanding.) It makes sense, as stated in the story, surgeons (Boylan specifies neurosurgeons, thankfully) often play the piano as it is good dexterity practice for their hands.
Strange, of all such (former) surgeons, need to do this, especially as it is the damage in his hands (first from his original origin-inducing car crash and then in the fairly-recent "World War Hulk" mayhem that led to his losing control of magic) that he might need to reverse and thus regain some of his control to reclaim his abdicated title (and thus his "power").
One might argue how I leave the story with a positive appreciation for it, if I have so many negative comments or reservations about every aspect of it.
Well, I'm a complicated man.
Truthfully, the real reason is that this is only a 6-page story. Shorter than most of the earliest "Strange Tales" by Doc's creators; Steve Ditko and Stan Lee.
The title of this story; "RONDEAU" is a musical style, which the author states as meaning; "Return to the beginning". Much like the direction that Strange is being taken in the tale, the story itself - in style and content, is also a "return to the beginning", bringing we readers back to the manner of story from those early 1960's issues of Doctor Strange's original anthology title.
Even the manner of Strange tricking his adversary into losing, is a throwback to those earliest adventures.
Like those stories of old, this one has to fit a lot of information and ideas into a scant few pages. It is, by its very nature already starting off behind the "magic" 8-ball. And unless the work is completed by people who are working very closely with one another, from start to finish - or better yet - by one individual, all the while having a firm grip on the subject matter and characters involved, such discrepancies, omissions and errors are to be expected.
For instance, I honestly can not place the reason why Strange clicks the surge protector again at the very end of the story. There doesn't seem to be any need and the "click" is distracting in the absence of any visual effect.
Still, I'm evolved enough to see what this story was meant to be, what it could have been and appreciate the creative team for their efforts (and there is quite evidently plenty of effort shown) to make this piece a reality.
The tale, to use its musical framework, is an "interlude" - a point between what Strange was and who he is to be. It is the "song" that bridges those two separate works, especially if one thinks of one's self as a work of art --- in progress.
It is that "reworking" of ones self that is a very important aspect of this story.
I stated at the beginning of this "review" that I felt that this seemingly minor work bore major importance, and I do believe that could honestly be the case.
Aside from a return of one of Strange's long-lost rogues' gallery, it also steadfastly espouses a position that Strange is on the road to recovery.
His practicing of the piano piece and his words at the end of the story give rise to hope that Strange has begun the upward climb to greatness.
Perhaps the methods will change (as Brian Bendis is seemingly in charge of that - more so the pity), and sure, this could just be a small short story that happens to have a meaningful direction for the main character, but when that character has been dragged through the proverbial mud, losing nearly all greatness and direction over the past 5 years (or more), perhaps this hidden tale could be the first step on the path to redemption.
And if there is anything every true Doctor Strange fan must agree on, it is the power of...
Don't forget - go out and get this issue!
I might have picked it apart, but I can not undermine the fact that this is a serious "jump on" moment in the life and path of Doctor Strange.
For those who are curious about the very TITLE of this story and the musical piece that Strange was working on I present this information - which sadly may also points out a possible flaw in the story.
It is that one last point that I feel I should explore - purely in the name of art...
Writer Cynthia Boylan has Strange state that he is practicing a piece composed by Bach (presumably Johann Sebastian Bach) and that piece is a "rondeau".
She has Strange state that the title of the piece is an instruction... "return to the beginning".
However, the artwork clearly shows the sheet music bearing the title of Bach's "Inventio(n) 4".
"Inventio(n) 4" is an appropriate piece for Strange to be practicing as the "Inventions" were pieces that Bach composed as educational practice exercises for his students.
Since Stephen Strange is trying to regain some finger dexterity, it is exactly a piece like this that he would attempt.
I could be wrong, but I do not believe that Inventio(n) 4" is a rondeau.
It might more likely be a "ritornello" which is derived from the Italian word ritornare meaning "to return". Although, in the progression of musical forms and histories, the "rondo" (which was also and earlier called rondeau and was a descendant of the even earlier Boroque "ritornello") doesn't truly stipulate a "return to the beginning".
And truthfully, "rondeau" doesn't quite mean "return to the beginning".
A rondeau is a term that calls for repetition of verses and refrain, but not a specific return to the beginning.
Typically the styles of repeating verses and refrains of Rondo/Rondeau are in the form of ABA, ABACA, or ABACADA or even ABaAabAB.
And, to add to the confusion, Boylan writes that it is the musical piece's TITLE, and not its STYLE, that is the instruction. The title which can be translated as "return to the beginning".
Neither "Rondeau" nor "Inventio(n)" mean such a thing.
While Bach did indeed pen some pieces with the word "Rondeau" in the title, "Instructio(n) 4" is not one of them.
A musical term that does indeed mean "return to the beginning", AND one that is used in the title of a work is "Da Capo" - which literally means "from the head". My original thought (before I saw the sheet music presented in the story) was that Strange could have been playing Bach's "Aria Da Capo" (sometimes called; "Da Capo Aria").
However, I am also unaware if "Aria Da Capo" is classified as a "rondeau".
(While I do possess some musical aptitude and retain some knowledge of my prior years in music study, I have never been a scholar of musical styles, forms and histories.
My knowledge of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach are relegated to merely those of an aware appreciation and ability to play - somewhat poorly - a few.
One fleeting thought in the "oh, I hope they won't go with the cliche' " vein, was that - again, before noting the actual sheet music's title in the work, that the piece Strange may be practicing was Bach's "Toccata and Fugue - in D-minor" (most commonly known as being the piece most used in "Haunted houses", Halloween soundtracks and the "Phantom of the Opera"). The term "Fugue" doesn't mean "return to the beginning" either, but a fugue does indeed feature a recapitulation (a "return") to a tonal key or motif that started the piece. So, in that, it does feature a "return to the beginning", in that off-hand way.
However, I leave it to those who are my musical superiors to inform us all if the term "rondeau" fits any of these musical works - but specifically, "Inventio 4" as it is the piece actually shown in the story.
What I also leave to the musicians in the audience to determine is... looking at the actual notes in the sheet music which is represented in the story... aside from the title of the work, I can find no similarity with it and the actual sheet music for "Inventio(n) 4". Admittedly, it can be transcribed for numerous instruments, and I have only the piano score with which to compare it.
I won't bother everyone (any more than I already have), but I have placed the image of the first stanza within the video below.
*(you MAY need to click on the audio/video player controls a few times. For some reason they get stuck.
But the music "video" IS there.)